James Harden pleasantly surprised the Houston Rockets’ coaching staff by showing no signs of rust as a full participant in Thursday’s practice, his first since arriving at the NBA’s Walt Disney World Resort campus five days after the team flew to Orlando, Florida.
“He looked good,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He probably was rusty for about 30 seconds, and then he was back.”
Harden, who cited “some family issues” as the reason for his delayed arrival, said it was the first time he had played 5-on-5 in more than a month. Teammate Ben McLemore said Harden looked like the “same old James” during the team’s scrimmage.
“I think the world knows, no matter what’s going on, James Harden loves to hoop,” said Harden, who is averaging 34.4 points per game and is a virtual lock to claim his third consecutive NBA scoring title. “He’s a competitor, so today in practice we got after it. We played a couple of quarters and we pushed ourselves, and I’m doing a lot of trash talking as usual, just to get the guys motivated and keep pushing.”
D’Antoni anticipated easing Harden into practice after a layoff of more than four months. But Harden told D’Antoni that he believed he was ready to fully participate right away.
“I thought we’d have to ramp him up a little bit, but he’s been going hard before he got here,” D’Antoni said. “I didn’t see any difference whatsoever. Now, we’ll watch [Friday]. If he’s sore or something else, then maybe we’ll back him off, but right now he’s full tilt. He looks like he’s ready to go.”
The Rockets are still awaiting the arrivals of Russell Westbrook, their other perennial All-Star guard, and recent addition Luc Mbah a Moute. Westbrook announced this week that he tested positive for COVID-19 before the Rockets’ departure for Orlando.
“Once we get Russ back and we’ve got our full roster healthy and we get in shape like we need to be, we can compete with anybody,” Harden said.
Harden plans to participate in the Rockets’ scrimmages in preparation for the eight-game seeding schedule. He acknowledged, though, that his goal for the Rockets is to hit their stride as the playoffs begin next month.
Houston is tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth place in the Western Conference standings with a 40-24 record, a game behind the Utah Jazz. Harden indicated that the Rockets would treat the seeding schedule as somewhat of a tuneup period, noting that there was no such thing as home-court advantage in the bubble-like atmosphere.
“We don’t have any fans, so it’s you versus us and we’re going to have to figure it out,” Harden said. “If you’re fourth seed, fifth seed, sixth seed, it doesn’t really matter. For us, it’s about being in shape and making sure that our offense and our defense is crispy and we’re all on the same page. We’ll play anybody.”